Illustration by Ben Beechener

Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha (2010)

What draws us towards culture? What pulls us in, seeking to better understand the world all around us? Despite anthropology being centered in understanding large scale social structures – such as ethics, morals, behaviors, and cultural norms – it also helps individuals understand the lost disjuncture of ‘self’ that arises throughout life. When I think about all the insecurities that emerge in our adolescent years, I find we tend to turn to areas such as academia, to offer reassurance that much of the social structures surrounding us are intrinsically disorienting. In particular, I struggled to understand issues of sexual ‘purity’ versus sensuality throughout my life – and whether these are even valid points of contention. The age-old clash between an inherently human desire for sex and the social constructivism that surrounds moralism puzzled me. Why is shame-culture spoken into existence in the same breath as sex? While we have, in many ways, had a cultural revelation regarding sexual liberation, slut-shaming prevails, albeit with new terms and varying sociosexual discourses. Nevertheless, the provocative woman arguably remains as detested as she is admired. In my younger years, it left me asking: what structural order does the stigmatization of sex create in our society – and what, if anything, does it preclude?  

It was not until I stumbled across theorists like Engels (1884), and Foucault (1976), that I started to make sense of the social discrepancies in the sexual regulation of the woman’s body. These theorists illuminated the inherent lack of coherency, in that purity has no consistency. Instead, sexual purity is better understood as an invisible hand reaching out in a seemingly haphazard manner to bid the work of underlying and unapparent social controls invisible to a teenager’s eye. In turn, it is most pointedly Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s 2010 publication of Sex at Dawn that helped me make sense of the sexual scrutiny surrounding the ‘impure’, ‘provocative’ girls of the world.  

Within the opening chapter, the authors express, “sexuality is similar to that of a false garment that fits no one, yet we are all supposed to buy and wear it daily” (Ryan and Jetha, 2010, p.33). What a profound statement I had been searching for my whole life. Too many of us feel lost in the sexual structures that supposedly guide out most intimate actions. Why then do so many of us feel alienated from the autonomy of our sexual decisions? Ryan and Jetha pull from an extensive array of literature published in the years prior, creating a case that stands in opposition to the ‘standard narrative’ in which women are inherently dissuaded from sexual encounters while men continuously seek them out. In response to this convention the authors further examine the standard narrative, expressing that: 

‘a contradiction can be found in the narrative of women as inherently unsexual as we look to the world’s history and see grave attempt[s] to control and squash its [female sexuality’s] existence: female genital mutilation, chadors, medieval witch burning, chastity belts, suffocating corsets, insatiable whore insults and pathologizing’. (Ryan and Jetha, 2010, p.39) 

For, if the dynamic of the standard narrative were unwavering and true, foundational social systems intrinsic to acts of intimate and economic exchange between man and women, such as the bourgeoisie’s marriage, would seem naturally humanistic and just. While we know today women are sexual, autonomous beings, the narrative remains in the cracks of social thinking: ‘chase and be chased’, confine and conform – or be shamed. Such phenomena constrict the capacity to discuss sex freely, not only with friends and families but most importantly with sexual partners. In doing so a great risk is incurred to both mental and physical health, affecting individuals’ perceptions of themselves in relation to their sexuality, and risking safety and communication that help guide healthy practices within an individual’s sex life.  

Bound to a more anatomical analysis, Jetha and Ryan rely on medical anthropolgy to argue that human’s sexual behaviours stretch beyond mainstream monogamy. For example, the notion of concealed ovulation means many females do not explicitly know the exact moments in which they can reproduce throughout their menstrual cycles. For other animals, such as baboons, bodily structures shift, such as a swelling of the buttocks to indicate to potential partners that they are in a viable state for reproduction. However, humans don’t have this overt physical marker. Instead, consistent sexual engagement is often practised throughout menstrual cycles to increase the chance of fertilization. Moreover, Ryan and Jetha pull on more Darwinian ideals of genetic variation and competition for species advancement. More simply put, the authors acknowledge that a healthy level of rivalry between males is beneficial to offspring. However, animals, such as gorillas, compete on a physical level to obtain a chance at mating and passing off genetic material. In contrast, humans and bonobos are more attuned to practicing reproductive competition at a genetic level. The human uterus is evident as a somewhat hostile biological structure, arguably creating a system in which only the most viable sperm is successful in fertilization. In doing so, humans can have numerous partners throughout the month and rely on internal structures to determine who is a successful biological parent for their offspring. That is, ‘the cells fight, so the individuals don’t have to’ (Ryan and Jetha, 2010, p. 223). This shift from physical competition to genetic competition is said by Ryan and Jetha to aid in a more cohesive and relaxed environment, where males feel less conflict with one another and can instead derive beneficial social relations. As well, females ideally should have frequent sex with numerous partners to increase genetic exposure and obtain fertilization from the most desirable paternal figure (genetically speaking). In turn, our bodies tell us a story that stands in opposition to sexual restraint and monogamous practices.   

It must be noted that all cultural commentary should be approached with a critical eye. Ryan and Jetha’s work should not be exempt from this either, as their book remains vulnerable to specific methodical errors or strenuous arguments. They rely too strongly on the analysis of bonobos for insights to humanistic behaviors, instead of chimps, as has commonly been done by medical anthropologists in the past. Instead, to learn about human nature, we must look broadly to the biological world in an expansive and inclusive manner. Additionally, Sex at Dawn remains grounded in a heteronormative framework despite the sexual diversity of the world. With this critique in mind, the book breeds a lingering sense of incompleteness in attempting to capture the intricate notions of sexual authenticity.. Nevertheless, Ryan and Jetha’s work opens an intriguing and unique discussion regarding sex, shame, cultural and moralistic scrutiny of socially constructed ideals. In doing so, the authors help spearhead tough conversations surrounding monogamy, marriage, and infidelity in the 21st century. Consequently, Sex at Dawn remains a key steppingstone into anthropological analysis and emerges as a must-read for those hoping to disentangle the puzzling social world of human sexuality.